Budget cuts could clip NASA's wings

Current figures would force agency to scale back space station plans.

New US astronauts eager to "kick the tires and light the fires" may find that their best chance to soar, at least in the near future, comes when they board airliners for public-speaking tours. That is one implication of the new spending plan the White House is proposing for the US space program.

While the Bush administration is calling for cuts in departments ranging from Energy to Transportation, the diminished numbers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are causing particular concern in the tight-knit space community.

They come at a time when the agency is trying to recapture some of the visibility and frontier spirit of the early days of the space program, with talk of missions to Mars and the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Almost weekly, images are beamed around the world of astronauts in marshmallow suits snapping a new pod on the station in a galactic version of "This Old House."

Yet it is the space station itself that is prompting the Bush White House to act. The project faces a $4 billion cost overrun over the next five years - more than the entire yearly budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - and the White House is saying, "Enough."

At $14.5 billion, NASA's proposed budget for 2002 will increase slightly over last year. But because of big-ticket items, like the space station, it will have tangible effects in cubicles on the ground and in orbit.

Space station modules would have to be scrapped. Plans for a more-spacious "lifeboat" would be shelved, limiting the size of the crew to three. And the number of space-shuttle flights would be cut from eight a year to six.

Some experts say it will reduce the agency's signature project to nothing more than a modern version of Mir, the hoary Russian station scheduled to be destroyed later this month.

"This is likely to shake public confidence in US space leadership," warns Patricia Dasch, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington.

At the same time, the Bush administration would sharply increase the amount of money NASA spends on fostering a new generation of cheaper, more reliable rockets. Cutting launch costs and reducing risks are seen as crucial if businesses ranging from tourism to manufacturing are to establish themselves in orbit.

"We're seeing a distinct push toward expanding commercial opportunities in space," says Ms. Dasch.

The new budget also represents a strong signal that "there needs to be greater work done on NASA's ability to deliver on its promises," says Ray Williamson, a professor at The George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. The agency long has had a reputation for overselling the potential of big-ticket projects such as the space shuttle and the space station while underestimating their costs.

The proposed cuts come at a time when station construction has moved into high gear. A countdown is currently under way for the Thursday launch of the shuttle Discovery, which will take experiment racks up to the new laboratory module NASA astronauts installed last month. The mission also will take the second crew up for its tour of duty aboard the orbiting laboratory and bring the space station's inaugural crew home.

In the administration's view, the US portion will be complete when the station is ready for laboratory modules contributed by Japan and Europe. Gone are the habitation module, with living space for four astronauts, the crew return vehicle, and the propulsion module.

One uncertainty is how such cuts will play out with NASA's international partners. Crew time aboard the ISS, for example, has become a marketable commodity. The European Space Agency has proposed buying Russian cosmonaut time aboard the ISS as a way to help Russia's cash-strapped space program. With a smaller crew comes fewer opportunities to place astronauts on the station. With fewer hands to tend the experiment racks, the research agenda could be delayed or even reduced.

But the reduced scope of NASA's contribution could spur private industry to pick up the slack. Last fall, for example, US-based Spacehab signed a pact with RSC-Energia, Russia's largest aerospace company, to build a jointly owned, commercial space station module that would link to the Russian segment of the ISS. The module, which will include lab facilities and a broadcast center, is scheduled for launch in 2003.

"This will not be Bill Clinton's space station," Dasch says, "but it could be a very interesting place."

If private industry fails to fill in gaps, she adds, that could be a signal that additional modules "would not have been a good expenditure of taxpayers' money."

One key to greater commercial interest is cheap, reliable access to space. In an attempt to foster research into a new generation of reusable launch vehicles, NASA has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into its "space launch initiative."

The goal is to develop vehicles that can deliver a payload into orbit for $1,000 a pound, rather than today's $10,000 a pound. The system would have to be robust enough to boost the launch rate from perhaps 10 a year to as many as 100 launches annually.

Yet critics say NASA has turned to the usual cast of aerospace characters for prototypes, instead of funding smaller companies with more-innovative ideas.

For example, critics have chafed at the amount of money spent on the X-33 program, a Lockheed-Martin effort to build a small prototype for a new generation of space shuttles. After spending $912 million on the X-33, NASA last week announced it was ending the project.

The Bush team has proposed boosting the space-launch-initiative budget by more than 60 percent above last year to some $475.6 million.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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